Ruby Payne-Scott – The Shorts-Wearing Communist Married Astronomer of Australia

By Jaime Seltzer

Ruby Payne-Scott was born in 1912 in New South Wales, Australia. She was one of the first female graduates of the University of Sydney to major in physics, and she went on to earn her Masters there as well. She won various awards at school for her intellectual prowess, and another location, Ruby might have gone on to earn a doctorate rather than a master’s degree. However, no colleges in Australia offered Ph.D.s at the time.

From 1936 through 1940, Payne-Scott worked in the emerging field of radiation therapy in cancer. Her master’s thesis was on the wavelength distribution of scattered radiation.
On graduation, Ruby was disappointed to find that there were not a lot of labs looking to hire women. She taught at a public school until she was able to secure a position at Australian Wireless Amalgamated… as a librarian. But Ruby was tenacious and painstakingly worked her way up the ladder until the same company hired her on as a physicist. Two years after she had been hired by AWA, she applied to and was hired by CSIR, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. She and Joan Freeman were the only women working there in anything other than an administrative position – that is, as secretaries or assistants.

CSIR was working on top-secret research on a new, defensive system called radar. Payne-Scott helped develop a system that made it easier to detect radio transmissions even when the signal was weak. Shortly thereafter, Payne-Scott and a colleague, Joseph L. Pawsey, conducted the first astronomical radio experiment in 1944 by pointing their detection equipment into the sky, in 1944.

It was the law in Australia at that time that married women couldn’t be involved in public service: “A female officer who marries after the commencement of this Section shall for the purpose of this Act be deemed to have resigned from the date of her marriage.”

Study of the universe via radio waves was not something that had been attempted before, but the technique would come to be of enormous importance. Radio waves are one of the only methods that can be used to detect magnetic fields in space. Radio waves are also not greatly affected by particles of dust, which could interfere with other methods of astronomical detection and observation.

Therefore, Pawsey and Payne-Scott’s attempt to find what was out there was a move that would change the history of astronomy forever. (It is worth noting, however, that they were wondering about radio signals that had been sent deliberately by individuals rather than by the laws of physics: they were wondering if radio waves could be used to detect extraterrestrial life!)

Being one of the rare young women at CSIR wasn’t all dizzying new methods of studying the universe, of course. At one point, the librarian at the National Standards Lab at CSIR must have decided that the women had let themselves go a little native among all the menfolk. She called a meeting for the women who worked at CSIR to take them to task for unwomanly habits and dress, such as smoking and wearing (gasp!) shorts. It was a perfect demonstration of the difference between the modern woman of the 1940s, who was generally ready to put her hand to whatever work was necessary even when she got grease under her nails, and the pre-World War II generation, who found the clear delineation between the sexes natural and desirable. The meeting also might have been a kind of pot-shot against Joan Freeman (who smoked) and Ruby Payne-Scott (who was an avid outdoorswoman and sometimes wore hiking shorts). When Payne-Scott heard about the meeting, she excused herself briefly, only to return wearing her shortest shorts. (Joan did not bother to show up at all.)

Ruby Payne-Scott

Ruby Payne-Scott and her card in the Women in Science game.

This feisty self-confidence was par for the course with Ruby. Her first employee evaluation is hysterical to read: Payne-Scott was apparently “very loud” and her supervisor did not believe she would work out in the long-term.

The old adage that well-behaved women rarely make history certainly applied to Ruby, who kept on being her outspoken, confident self while doing awesome and incredible radio astronomy. After World War II ended, Payne-Scott became part of a project to analyze the radio ‘static’ of the sort that she and her colleagues had observed in their attempt to detect radio waves in space. These waves appeared to emanate from the sun and other stars. It was Payne-Scott’s team who realized that the waves were associated with the solar flares, or solar bursts. She played a key role in beginning to classify the ways in which these solar events shifted the radio waves in space, classifying three of the five types of solar bursts. She also used her mathematics background to apply a formula known as a Fourier transform to describe the intensity of the radio waves across the sky as the sums of an infinite series of radio waves bouncing around. (If you are familiar with the results of the double-slit experiment, there are some similarities.) Her use of the formula is considered the mathematical foundation for all radio astronomy research.

Ruby had a somewhat dramatic personal life. What no one knew was that she was actually married when she published that research in 1947. They didn’t know because she and her husband had kept it a secret.

It was the law in Australia at that time that married women couldn’t be involved in public service: “A female officer who marries after the commencement of this Section shall for the purpose of this Act be deemed to have resigned from the date of her marriage.” Since Payne-Scott managed to keep her marriage a secret for six years, one hopes they weren’t taking the letter of the law seriously and demanding her paychecks back!

Ruby bitterly contested the decision, writing a letter that basically told her boss that the law was stupid and everybody knew it was stupid, and stupid laws produce stupid results. The reply was a bureaucratic missive so full of condescending “why, let me explain the law to you, little lady”s that it’s amazing it still survives in the public record rather than having been set on fire or ripped to shreds by a file clerk between then and now.

Part of the reason the paperwork did survive is that Ruby was also accused of communism, and so her stuff all had to be kept very carefully in case it later became evidence. Payne-Scott was a member of the communist party but, as one of her watchers put it, it was hard to tell if she was pro-union, pro-science, and feminist – or out to blow up Australia. (In those days, it might have been viewed as a fine line.) Eventually, in 1959 she was removed from the ‘person of interest’ list, but history benefits – a lot of documents remain about Ruby and written by Ruby, when there is a lot less good stuff on some of the women in science out there.

Ruby Payne-Scott was only a scientist for nine years, full-time. Considering her accomplishments, one has to wonder where astronomy might be today if not for the law that kept her out of the laboratory.

References
Dineley, J. (2013, May 24). Would Ruby Payne-Scott Have Got Further In Her Career Today? Physics Focus. Retrieved on October 4, 2015 from http://physicsfocus.org/jude-dineley-would-ruby-payne-scott-have-got-further-in-her-career-today/
Dyer, K. (2000, January). Ruby Payne-Scott. In: AAS Committee on the Status of Women. Retrieved from http://www.aas.orgscwa/status/2000/JANUARY2000/Dyer.html
Goss, W.M. and Hooker. C. (2012). Payne-Scott, Ruby Violet (1912-1981). In Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Cenre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved October 4, 2015 from http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/payne-scott-ruby-violet-15306/text26233.
The Secret Life of Miss Ruby Payne-Scott. (n.d.) In: National Archives of Australia. Retrieved October 4, 2015 from http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/snapshots/find-of-the-month/2009-march.aspx

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